There’s been a lot of good talk about Leon for some time, and then there are their cookbooks and the fact that they won Observer Food Monthly‘s best restaurant award six months after opening the first restaurant in 2004, so I guess I’ve been a bit slow getting to one. Though I could excuse myself by saying there aren’t any in west London. They have a reputation for producing healthy food with a difference – and fast. So I was pleased it was suggested, when out with a group of friends on Saturday, that we go to Leon Bankside in between a tour of the Rose Theatre and an evening performance there.
I knew all about Leon’s healthy food reputation but I hadn’t really taken in that it was a fast-food joint – rather than a ‘restaurant’ – and entering is much like going into a Pret a Manger or an Eat.
OK, you might say, it’s a lot more exciting inside than your average Pret a Manger – but then you probably haven’t seen our super, big and very smart new Pret a Manger in Richmond!
The welcome was very friendly and they’d set aside an area for our group, though at 5 pm on a Saturday afternoon it wasn’t massively busy. The menus are huge ‘newspapers’ and the ‘huge’ is further reflected in their talk: ‘We bring you boldly-flavoured, naturally fast food’, ‘what fast food might be like in heaven … served by angels’, ‘ingredients come from farms we trust’, etc. There are Hot boxes, Superfood Salads, Leon Chicken Salads, Wraps, Burgers and Sides.
There are some quite exciting choices; Persian Chicken & Avocado, Leon Meatballs, and Original Superfood, but not a huge range. I opted for a Sweet Potato Falafel Wrap: ‘made with chickpeas, sweet potato, fresh herbs and spices, served with cos lettuce, garlic aioli and our own-made tomato chutney’. Gosh, why do people feel the need to add every tiny little detail! But it did sound nice. However, when it landed rather unceremoniously on my tray at the counter, having waited a while for it to be ‘prepared’ (not much ‘fast’ going on here), it didn’t look great. It was wrapped tightly in foil! I had fresh apple juice to go with it (it apparently had mint in it but that passed me by). All the ‘freshly’ squeezed juices were already made and stacked up behind the counter. As I was waiting for my wrap a friend tried her orange juice and I could see from the expression on her face it was sharp and not great, and asking her confirmed this. Back at the table I opened my wrap – with some difficulty as it was so tightly wrapped up. This is really not a nice way to access your food.
It was rather a sorry-looking thing. It didn’t taste great either; a barely lukewarm spongy mess of a flatbread with overcooked, hard and tasteless falafel and a sorry leaf of lettuce. Was this really freshly prepared? Why the horrible wrapping? Opposite me someone had one of the boxes: I had to ask what it was; it wasn’t obvious. And it didn’t look good. I then had an espresso.
A good espresso it a mouthful of delight, a punchy delicious caffeine hit. This was bitter.
What a disappointment. I actually thought for all the talk of freshly made and healthy, sustainable eating here in Leon, I’d much rather be in a Pret a Manger. I’m not found in them often, but they do the fast-food bit better and their food is nicer looking and better tasting. It seems to me that Leon are full of good talk but seriously lacking in delivering.